16 Best World War II Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors
How do you make a film about the Holocaust feel new? How do you make the terrors feel fresh, like it was just in the news, without sounding redundant or without giving into the sensationalized and emotionally manipulative? For Director Jonathan Glazer, the answer lies in not what you show but what you don’t show. The Zone of Interest is shot from the point of view of Nazi Officer Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), who live a dreamy life right next to the infamous Auschwitz death camp. Glazer frames them plainly and without flourish as they ignore (or, arguably, revel in) the glow of burning bodies, the howls of pain, and the billows of smoke coming from the torture chamber a wall away. It’s a powerful, nauseating contrast that turns the question from “How can they do this?” to “Who among us is committing the same things right now?” Who among us is casting a blind eye to the atrocities and genocide being committed at this very moment to our neighbors? The film, which is also a technical feat in terms of the way it’s shot (the crew and cameras remained hidden so that the actors were free to roam, as if in a play) is chilling and thought-provoking, and it will unnerve you for days on end.

Genre: Drama, History, War

Actor: Anastazja Drobniak, Christian Friedel, Daniel Holzberg, Freya Kreutzkam, Imogen Kogge, Jakub Sierenberg, Johann Karthaus, Klaudiusz Kaufmann, Lilli Falk, Luis Noah Witte, Marie Rosa Tietjen, Maximilian Beck, Medusa Knopf, Nele Ahrensmeier, Rainer Haustein, Ralph Herforth, Sandra Hüller, Sascha Maaz, Shenja Lacher, Thomas Neumann

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Rating: PG-13

Transit is based on a WWII novel — though you wouldn’t be able to tell from first glance. While the characters talk of German fascists occupying France, anachronistic details (like modern technology and clothing) suggest we haven’t gone back in time at all. Director Christian Petzold isn’t trying to confuse us: by blurring the backdrop, he’s making the terror and the desperation of the story more immediate — removing the distance that might have prevented us from really feeling what happens.

The uncanny historical echo effect works as intended, because the parallels Transit subtly draws between the past and today are horribly clear. What’s more, the movie’s intentionally ambiguous framing suffuses the plot with an otherworldly sense of mystery, a quality that gradually intensifies as Georg (Franz Rogowski) desperately searches for a one-way ticket out of hellish bureaucratic limbo before he finds himself waylaid by that most mysterious emotion of all: love. Unshakably haunting and undeniably poignant, this is a movie that will live under your skin.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Àlex Brendemühl, Antoine Oppenheim, Barbara Auer, Emilie de Preissac, Franz Rogowski, Godehard Giese, Grégoire Monsaingeon, Justus von Dohnányi, Lilien Batman, Louison Tresallet, Maryam Zaree, Matthias Brandt, Paula Beer, Ronald Kukulies, Sebastian Hülk, Trystan Putter

Director: Christian Petzold

Perhaps the most depressing but vital movie produced by animation giant Studio Ghibli, Grave of the Fireflies is a searing and sweeping drama that covers the horrors of World War II through the eyes of teenager Seita and his young sister Setsuko. Between the violence of war and the tragedy of loss, the siblings struggle to preserve not just their lives but their humanity. In typical Ghibli fashion, there are moments of gentle beauty to be found, but instead of conflicting with the overall stark tone of the film, they successfully underscore war's futility and brutality, making Grave of the Fireflies one of the most important anti-war narratives ever told. 

Genre: Animation, Drama, War

Actor: Akemi Yamaguchi, Ayano Shiraishi, Hiroshi Tanaka, Kyoko Moriwaki, Masayo Sakai, Tsutomu Tatsumi, Yoshiko Shinohara

Director: Isao Takahata

You've probably watched and heard about enough Holocaust films to expect a formula, but you might want to put all that aside going into The Boy in Striped Pajamas. Bruno, the son of a WWII Nazi commandant forms an unlikely friendship with a Jewish kid his age in his father's concentration camp. The film is World War II told through Bruno's eyes, and while you might not get why this movie is so highly praised in its first scenes, the twisting and profound second half will have you recommending it to everyone in need of a moving story well executed, or quite simply a good cry.

Genre: Drama, Family, History, War

Actor: Amber Beattie, Asa Butterfield, Béla Fesztbaum, Cara Horgan, Charlie Baker, David Hayman, David Thewlis, Domonkos Nemeth, Gábor Harsai, Henry Kingsmill, Iván Verebély, Jack Scanlon, Jim Norton, Julia Papp, László Áron, Mihály Szabados, Richard Johnson, Rupert Friend, Sheila Hancock, Vera Farmiga, Zac Mattoon O'Brien, Zsolt Sáfár Kovács, Zsuzsa Holl

Director: Mark Herman

Rating: PG-13

Set in war-torn Berlin during World War II, this film explores the forbidden romance between a married mother of four and a Jewish woman working undercover for the resistance based on the real lives of Lilly Wust and Felice Schragenheim, as detailed in Erica Fischer's book of the same name. As expected, all of the frightening challenges of Jewish people, women, and queer folks are presented bluntly. But there are enough touching and humane moments of empathy that contrast the harsh realities of war. The performances by Maria Schrader and Juliane Köhler are simply remarkable, bringing depth and authenticity to their characters' intense connection and creating a poignant viewing experience. 

Genre: Drama, History, Romance

Actor: Barbara Focke, Dani Levy, Désirée Nick, Detlev Buck, Dorkas Kiefer, Elisabeth Degen, Heike Makatsch, Jochen Stern, Johanna Wokalek, Juliane Köhler, Klaus Manchen, Kyra Mladeck, Maria Schrader, Peter Weck, Rosel Zech, Ulrich Matthes

Director: Max Färberböck

Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life) is back in full form with this three-hour movie based on a true story. His creation has one of the most beautiful depictions of happiness ever seen in film, portraying the simple yet joyous life of a farmer in the Austrian mountains. You'd have to see it for yourself to understand, but how Malick depicts this character's love for his wife (and her love for him), their children, and even their farming rituals are nothing short of cinematic wizardry. 

This peaceful existence changes when World War 2 intensifies and this farmer is called to serve for the Nazis. He refuses to enroll out of principle and puts himself and his family at great danger and alienation from their village. The question at the center of the film is one that other villagers and the church ask him a lot: what good can his actions do? And the title of the movie is taken from A George Eliot quote: "The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

Genre: Drama, History, War

Actor: Alexander Fehling, Alexander Radszun, August Diehl, Bernd Hölscher, Bruno Ganz, Chris Theisinger, Dieter Kosslick, Dimo Alexiev, Ermin Sijamija, Franz Rogowski, Joel Basman, Johan Leysen, Johannes Gabl, Johannes Krisch, Johannes Nussbaum, Jürgen Prochnow, Karin Neuhäuser, Karl Markovics, Katja Lechthaler, Leonard Kunz, Maria Simon, Mark Waschke, Martin Wuttke, Matthias Schoenaerts, Max Malatesta, Max Mauff, Michael Nyqvist, Michael Steinocher, Monika Lennartz, Moritz Katzmair, Nicholas Reinke, Sarah Born, Sophie Rois, Thomas Mraz, Tobias Moretti, Ulrich Brandhoff, Ulrich Matthes, Valerie Pachner, Waldemar Kobus, Wolfgang Michael

Director: Terrence Malick

Rating: PG-13

In what was originally intended to be his final film, Hayao Miyazaki is at his most lucid with The Wind Rises. Fluid and luminous, it cleanly moves between a grounded, historical reality and an intuitive, imaginative dreamscape. Here Miyazaki reflects on the process of creation and what it means to be an artist, drawing parallels between his own meticulousness as a filmmaker with Horikoshi’s immutable passion for flight and efficient design.

But questions of responsibility and duty arise, as Horikoshi—and by extension, Miyazaki—must reckon with the reality that even things as beautiful as aeroplanes can be destructive, and that even dreams can be violent. This meditative film does not offer any easy answers but it provides solace in its prevailing sentiment: The wind is rising, we must try to live.

Genre: Animation, Drama, Family, History, Romance, War

Actor: Hayao Miyazaki, Hideaki Anno, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Jun Kunimura, Kaichi Kaburagi, Keiko Takeshita, Mansai Nomura, Martin Short, Masahiko Nishimura, Miori Takimoto, Mirai Shida, Morio Kazama, Sascha, Shinobu Otake, Stephen Alpert

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Rating: PG-13

Taking place entirely on beachside farmlands in Denmark, Land of Mine takes a particularly intimate—and visually distinct—approach to war. The fighting may be over, but the film remains a tense and emotionally distressing, with all the pain and violence being carried over onto these German boys being forced to clear the beaches of live explosives with their bare hands. The relationship between these young men and their vengeful Danish commanding officer may progress a little quickly for some, but their volatile bond only emphasizes that rage isn't meant to be felt forever, and that war is a destructive cycle that eventually needs to come to an end.

Genre: Drama, History, War

Actor: August Carter, Emil Belton, Joel Basman, Johnny Melville, Karl Alexander Seidel, Laura Bro, Leon Seidel, Levin Henning, Louis Hofmann, Mads Riisom, Magnus Bruun, Maximilian Beck, Mette Lysdahl, Michael Asmussen, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Oskar Belton, Oskar Bökelmann, Roland Møller, Roland Moller

Director: Martin Zandvliet

Rating: R

In this documentary by Bianca Stigter, a three-minute home video of a nondescript Jewish town in Poland is examined in great detail to reveal the history and humanity behind it. Taken just before the Holocaust, it’s one of the few remaining proofs of life the town has before its population was decimated in the war. And so the footage is repeated and stretched in this documentary, because as the narrator puts it, “as long as we are watching, history is not over yet,” and the people have yet to be gone.

Glenn Kurtz, the grandson of the person who shot the home video, takes it upon himself to investigate the history of the town and its citizens: what they were and what became of them. The results are often grim and unsettling, and the eerie editing matches them with great effect. But when it's not haunting, the film is oddly hopeful—for a future that remembers its past and preserves it in meaningful ways. Couple this sentiment with the narrator’s own poetic observations, and you get a powerfully moving elegy about loss and memory. 

Genre: Documentary, Drama, History

Actor: Helena Bonham Carter

Director: Bianca Stigter

Great Freedom is not an easy watch. Apart from the quiet stretches of time and the claustrophobic confines of its prison setting, it also has its lead, Hans Hoffman (played with delicate force by Franz Rogowski) imprisoned again and again and again, unjustly treated like dirt by both his warden and fellow inmates.

But as a Jewish gay man who has lived through the war, Hans is no stranger to these trappings. As such, he takes each day as it comes, open to love, pleasure, and friendship, or at least the potential of these, despite the circumstances. And so Great Freedom is also hopeful and romantic, glimmering with the human tendency to not just survive but to live. Slow but compelling, subdued but powerful, Great Freedom is an affecting balancing act that's well worth watching. 

Genre: Crime, Drama, Romance, War

Actor: Andreas Patton, Anton von Lucke, Fabian Stumm, Franz Rogowski, Georg Friedrich, Thomas Prenn, Thomas Stecher

Director: Sebastian Meise

A quiet documentary that was released to celebrate the British Royal Air Force's centenary, Spitfire tells the story of the famous plane that younger audiences might only recognize from movies like Dunkirk or Darkest Hour. It features gorgeous footage of the last remaining planes in service flying over the British coast, testimonies from pilots who are still alive and a reminder of the key role that this plane once served. It feels like an attempt to capture and archive the importance of the plane, but also of its pilots, who for the most part were young kids with little training, but who, with time, learned valuable lessons from warfare. A must for aviation fans and a great option for anyone looking for a quiet movie to watch with their family (grandparents included). 

Genre: Documentary, History, War

Actor: Charles Dance, Mary Ellis

Director: Ant Palmer, David Fairhead

Rating: TV-PG

When German forces occupy Paris in 1942, a close-knit Jewish family tearfully sends their two youngest sons, Jo and Maurice, to escape the city on foot, with promises that they will all eventually be reunited in the Free Zone in the South. Told from the perspective of Jo – and based on the 1973 memoir of Joseph Joffo – what follows is a story of adventure, discovery, loss, love and the resilience of family bonds. A tapestry of cherished memories woven together with traumatic ones, the tone shifts again and again as Jo and his brother reach the bright shores of Nice––before they are driven to hiding again. Above all else, this is a story about the power of a family’s love, and of children who rise against the odds by their own courage and tenacity.

Genre: Drama, War

Actor: Batyste Fleurial, Bernard Campan, Candide Sanchez, César Domboy, Christian Clavier, Coline Leclère, Dorian Le Clech, Elsa Zylberstein, Émile Berling, Eric Bougnon, Etienne Chicot, Fred Epaud, Frédéric Epaud, Holger Daemgen, Ilian Bergala, Joël Dupuch, Kev Adams, Luc Palun, Lucas Prisor, Patrick Bruel, Pierre Kiwitt, Vincent Nemeth

Director: Christian Duguay

Tied together by a song that seems to drive people to end their own lives, Gloomy Sunday's tale of polyamorous love torn apart by the advent of the Second World War is one that doesn't operate according to your usual narrative structure. Its stranger elements might not always work with the very real horrors of the Nazis' invasion of Hungary, but the film still expresses this horror in a unique way. Even long before the war begins, this song that joins our three lovers together seems to touch on a sense of doom everybody is feeling—warning signs of Hitler's rise to power that ordinary people seem to have been powerless to stop in time. It's certainly unique for a non-action-driven war film, bathed in tragedy and bitter irony.

Genre: Drama, History, Romance, War

Actor: András Bálint, Áron Sipos, Ben Becker, Denis Moschitto, Dorka Gryllus, Erika Marozsán, Ferenc Bács, Ferenc Némethy, Ilse Zielstorff, István Mikó, Joachim Krol, Jörg Gillner, Karl Fischer, László I. Kish, Markus Hering, Márta Bakó, Michael Gampe, Rolf Becker, Sebastian Koch, Stefan Weinert, Stefano Dionisi, Ulrike Grote, Veit Stübner, Wanja Mues

Director: Rolf Schübel

, 2023

More shooting and spectacle than story, Sisu is a stunningly shot and unapologetically gory action film set at the tail end of World War II in Finland. It follows former commando turned prospector Aatami (nicknamed "Koschei" or immortal by the Russians) as he retrieves his stolen gold from the Nazis who've occupied and pillaged the nearby town.  

Not much happens in the way of plot, but what it lacks in that department it more than makes up for in action, which easily matches the likes of John Wick. In fact, Aatami is a kind of John Wick with his undefeatable killer moves and trusty dog pal—a reprieve of cute in a sea of endless carnage. But in the long list of grindhouse movies, Sisu distinguishes itself as astutely patriotic. Of course, it's hard not to root for anyone going against Nazis, but Sisu compels you to its side in subtle but powerful ways. 

You'll be reminded of John Wick, Mad Max, and many a Tarantino film watching Sisu, but you'll be struck by the film's singular hero, a stand-in for a nation unwilling to give up in the face of oppression. 

Genre: Action, Drama, Horror, War

Actor: Aamu Milonoff, Aksel Hennie, Arttu Kapulainen, Elina Saarela, Ilkka Koivula, Jack Doolan, Joel Hirvonen, Jorma Tommila, Max Ovaska, Mila Leppälä, Mimosa Willamo, Onni Tommila, Pekka Huotari, Severi Saarinen, Tatu Sinisalo, Vincent Willestrand, Wilhelm Enckell

Director: Jalmari Helander

Rating: R